The Chronicles of a Rookie Year

Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

When was the last time a Timberwolves rookie made you jump out of your seat at least once a game? When was the last time a Timberwolves rookie was a feared defender instead of shark bait for opposing stars? When was the last time you felt this strongly about a pair of Timberwolves rookies reaching stardom together? Ricky Rubio’s rookie year was a blast, but ultimately cut short with injury. Prior to Rubio, Kevin Garnett’s 2nd season coinciding with Stephon Marbury’s rookie year comes to mind. What an electric time to be a Wolves fan. Ready to feel old (or young if you do not remember that)? That was the 96–97 season. About 25 years ago. Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels offered Wolves fans a feeling they have barely had in the past 25 years. These are their stories:

 

All stats via basketball-reference.com

 

November 18th, 2020
The NBA Draft

After winning the NBA draft lottery and having not watched their favorite basketball team since mid-March, Wolves fans come into this night with a hurricane of optimism. Many of us had spent the last few months of our pandemic researching who the Wolves should take with their 1st overall pick, and it seemed there would be no consensus until Minnesota actually announced the pick. Would it be the giant from Memphis who barely played any college basketball? Could it be the child celebrity who went overseas to jump start his pro basketball career? Or would they take the charismatic physical specimen from Georgia? When the 1st pick came around, the Wolves stepped up and took Ant from Atlanta. He was shown putting a Timberwolves cap on and posing for pictures in front of paintings of his late Grandmother and Mother, and he was officially a Timberwolf. The draft moved on, and the Wolves who owned the 17th pick made a few deals to end up landing themselves Ricky Rubio, the 23rd pick, and the 28th pick. At 23, they made the slightly confusing (at the time) selection of Leandro Bolmaro, who at best would not even be on this side of the ocean until 2021. Then at 28, when so many fans wanted older prospects like Desmond Bane or Xavier Tillman, the Wolves surprised everyone by selecting Jaden McDaniels. The slim and silky stud from Seattle who stayed at home for his lone year of college at UW was projected as a lottery pick at one point, but fell on draft night because of concerns about a rough freshman year at Washington. The Wolves snatched him up at #28. Fans felt like Jaden would be a developmental project. Someone to spend the year in the G League to get some reps, and MAYBE help the team in 2021 or 2022. Draft grades ranged from A’s to C’s after draft night, mainly depending on what the grader thought about Anthony Edwards. Wolves fans felt optimistic, as the team had just selected a couple of young blank slates to eventually develop into players that can help the core.

 

December 12th, 2020
Preseason Game 1: Wolves vs. Grizzlies

The first time on an NBA court for our newest Timberwolves. Jaden McDaniels only saw a small amount of garbage time, 6 minutes, which furthered the belief that he would be a G League player soon enough. Anthony Edwards, our young star boy, played 26 minutes amassing only 5 points, 4 rebounds, and an assist. Defensively he was non-aggressive, and offensively he was relegated to the corner for the most part. When he did get a chance to handle the ball, he was letting the 3’s fly. Ant connected on a deep step-back 3 in the 1st half, and he looked relieved to see it go in. The Wolves lost with neither of their rookies showing anything remarkable, but for such young players having so little practice time it seemed reasonable to excuse them. The optimism remained high for these two youngsters, especially Edwards, heading into the regular season.

 

December 26th, 2020
Regular Season Game 2: Wolves vs. Jazz

Christmas kept on coming with this Wolves win. The team started the season 2–0, but the brightest spot in the win was the play of their #1 overall pick, Anthony Edwards. Against a tough veteran Jazz team, Ant seemed unafraid as he bowled his way to the rim on multiple occasions while stroking a couple of 3’s for good measure. He ended the game with 18 points on 8 of 12 shooting against the eventual #1 seed in the Western Conference with the multiple time Defensive Player of the Year manning the middle.

He had one of his mini scoring outbursts in the 1st quarter, with the game tied at 15 he hit a 3, then got to the rim for 3 straight layups. We did not know it at the time, but when this kid gets going — watch out. His finest moment, and foreshadowing the electricity to come, happened on a pass instead of a bucket. In the 2nd quarter a loose ball ended up in his hands as he led the Wolves in transition. He dished a sweet wraparound pass to just miss Joe Ingles and hitting DLo in stride for the layup. Consider our eyes officially opened by the rookie phenom.

 

January 5th, 2021
Regular Season Game 7: Wolves vs. Nuggets

The 5th out of 7 straight losses after the encouraging start to the season. The Wolves are reeling without their best player, but Anthony Edwards is here to continue bringing the optimism. Another 15 points, and his 1st real slam of the season on Nikola Jokic:

The issue is, it took Ant 19 shots to get that 15 points. Fans knew it would take time with Ant, but it was clear he was unable to effect winning so far. Once again, completely excusable with the disadvantage that rookies had in 2020, but it was tough to watch a struggling team as they attempted to bring Edwards along. Still no sign of Jaden McDaniels other than a few garbage time minutes in previous losses. The vibes are quickly souring.

 

January 10th, 2021
Regular Season Game 10: Wolves vs. Spurs

Finally a win. Minnesota ends their 7 game losing streak by beating the Spurs on the 2nd night of a home back to back against San Antonio. The most recent loss came in overtime with Anthony Edwards making the fatal mistake to close the game out. Down by 3 with the ball, Edwards attacked the hoop to get a layup, but realized at the last second the team needed 3 and turned it over trying to pass it back out. Now in the 2nd game of the short series it appeared Ant’s confidence was shaken. He only played 17 minutes and failed to score a point, even with 8 field goal attempts. The Wolves won, but it was clear that playing Edwards less benefitted the team overall. Not what you want to see from your #1 overall pick.

 

January 20th, 2021
Regular Season Game 13: Wolves vs. Magic

This could also be called “The Jaden McDaniels Breakout Game.” This was his announcement. His proclamation that he will no longer tolerate sitting on the bench while inferior players get minutes. He showed everything that we did not know he could be. He shut down Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucević by accruing 3 blocks and 8 rebounds in 26 minutes. He flew up the court in transition, getting an emphatic slam after a dish from DLo. Jaden even topped it off by hitting 2 of his 4 three point attempts. Instead of an intriguing young prospect, McDaniels showed that he can be a winning player right now.

An incredibly heartening game for Jaden ended in dispiriting fashion with Cole Anthony ripping the Wolves hearts out at the end, but the legend of Big Mac was born. Edwards continued his downturn netting only 8 points on 14 shots, and he did not register a rebound or assist in a game where the Wolves needed more from him. Ant did get another one of his increasingly patented powerful dunks, which is ALWAYS welcomed. Wolves fans start to think about 2 potential stars from the draft instead of one, but it’s still early.

It went on like this for awhile as the state of Minnesota descended further into the doldrums of Winter. Their favorite basketball team was missing their best player with COVID, and the losing continued. Anthony Edwards mixed in some good games (Win against Cleveland, close loss against the Lakers) with some clunkers as his inefficient scoring continued. Through the 1st 28 games of the season, he was averaging 14.8 points on only 39% shooting. Improving? Yes, but not quite enough. Fans started to doubt JUST a bit whether he could turn into a winning player, and this coincided with LaMelo Ball’s outstanding play for the surging Charlotte Hornets. Jaden McDaniels had inserted himself into the rotation as a 3 & D role player, but the initial splash plays he showed fans waned. Just when it seemed like the season would descend into the abyss, Anthony Edwards and “THE DUNK” happened.

 

February 19th, 2021
Regular Season Game 30: Wolves vs. Raptors

The box score shows a mid-February game in Minneapolis, MN. The Wolves lost 86–81. 81 points in today’s NBA? Also a disappointing 3–14 shooting night from the #1 overall pick. Rough night, right? WRONG! This is the night Anthony Edwards turned into a cult hero.

Vicious. My favorite things about this dunk in order:
1. The dunk itself, obviously. It powerfully defied my grasp of the capabilities of the human body.
2. The referee calling the foul a couple seconds late because he was frozen in time for a second after watching the dunk. It reminded me of the scene in the movie “Semi Pro” when the Flint Tropics convert the first ever Alley-oop and the referee blows the whistle after a few seconds because he doesn’t know what to do.
3. The scoreboard operator giving him 4 points for the dunk on accident. Appropriate.
4. The aftershock… players kind’ve wandering around for a few seconds with blank looks wondering what the heck happened while Ant looks up at the scoreboard to watch it again.

Poor Yuta Watanabe. Hung out to dry by his teammate lunging for a steal, and valiantly attempting a contest before fouling Ant AND getting landed on.

To top off the dunk of the year, Ant’s legend really took off with a single Tweet by Nate Duncan:

Most of NBA Twitter immediately jumped to Ant’s defense, and just like that Anthony Edwards was no longer the underachieving 1st overall pick. He was the high-flying litmus test for if a person was an “analytics nerd” or a “pure basketball fan.” A ridiculous debate? Sure, but it put Ant on the map for good.

A few more Wolves losses led into the All Star Break. The new coach, Chris Finch, had taken over and at this point fan interest/morale was likely at a season low even after “The Dunk” with the team sputtering at 7–29.

 

March 11th, 2021
Regular Season Game 37: Wolves vs. Pelicans

Jaden McDaniels already had his breakout game in terms of being a legitimate NBA player, but this game is where we all thought about him becoming much more. This was his masterpiece. 20 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and 3 blocks in just 25 minutes. He nailed 4 of his 5 threes, and stymied Zion Williamson multiple times at the rim. This game made fans drool over his potential. A 6’9″ lockdown defender with a burgeoning offensive game? What a package, and we somehow snagged him with the 28th pick. More than the 30 point win, Jaden McDaniels play in this game boosted the morale of Wolves fans simply by adding hope to the future. Ant also poured in 27 points marking the 1st time that both rookies contributed heavily to a win. Let the good vibes begin.

 

March 14th, 2021
Regular Season Game 37: Wolves vs. Blazers

To me this game is remembered as Ant’s 1st real star making performance. To this point, he had some big box scores in losses and sweet highlights, but never had the team climbed on his back towards a win like this night. After a tight loss to the Blazers in the previous game, Ant was determined to out-duel Damian Lillard and steal a victory. So, he did what any reasonable future star would do. He scored 34 points including 13 in the 4th quarter alone. That is AFTER he left the game briefly because of a hip check he took from Enes Kanter on an earlier layup. This was the 1st real win that fans could say they would have lost without Anthony Edwards. The optimism around Ant completely took off as players around the league took note of his performances. His postgame jersey swap with Lillard made Wolves grin from ear to ear. He wasn’t just a young dunker anymore… he was becoming a star.

 

March 18th, 2021
Regular Season Game 41: Wolves vs. Suns

The 26–13 fully healthy Suns vs. the 10–31 Timberwolves missing D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley. How in the world could the Wolves compete in this one. They would need a heroic performance from someone, and they got it. Anthony Edwards STEPPED UP:

42 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals got the Wolves to victory along with 41 points from Karl-Anthony Towns. Ant was a relentless force the entire game. The well-coached and healthy Suns had few solutions to stop Ant from bullying his way to the rim and hitting step back 3’s. He shot 13 free throws, and was seemingly invincible, at least for the night. This was the game that made Wolves fans salivate over the 2 man destructive force that Ant & Towns could form. A bulldozing guard and a sweet-shooting big man. Even the Suns, destined for the NBA finals, had no answers. If there was any doubt left for any fans that Ant can be a star, this game should have been their turning point.

 

March 31st, 2021
Regular Season Game 48: Wolves vs. Knicks

The return of Tom Thibodeau to Target Center with his rag-tag group of Knickerbockers. The Knicks had yet to hit their groove at just 24–24, but were about to make a run towards the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference. They had played incredible defense to that point, and they came in intent on stuffing the Wolves. Instead they got a double dose of Wolves Rookies who made winning plays all night long. Ant showed that he is much more than a scorer in sniffing out 3 steals and getting 4 blocks on defense. All 3 of his steals came in the 2nd half, and all 3 of them led directly to points in transition. Ant still did not always know where to be on defense, but he was certainly leaning into being aggressive and instinctual on that end. He finished the Knicks off with a tough drive to the hoop where he pump faked and made an awesome pass back out to Malik Beasley on the perimeter for the 3. Jaden McDaniels netted himself 18 points making 4 threes with 5 rebounds and 3 assists all while playing strong defense on Knicks star Julius Randle. With his place cemented in the starting lineup, you can almost see his confidence in his role growing with each passing game. After the game, Ant gave the infamous interview when he said they wanted RJ Barrett to take the last shot… drawing the ire of many Knicks fans. Ant didn’t care, at that point his stardom was almost guaranteed. As bad as the Wolves record was, they had become incredibly fun to follow.

 

The month of March ended with Anthony Edwards being named Rookie of the Month in the Western Conference. In the 13 March games, Ant averaged 24.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.5 assists, but his best was still yet to come.

 

April 24th, 2021
Regular Season Game 61: Wolves vs. Jazz

The first game of a 2 game series with the Jazz that would end up being Minnesota’s 1st back to back wins since (checks notes) the last time they beat the Jazz IN THE SEASON’S 2ND GAME. After a slow start, the Wolves were once again led back into the game thanks to the 2nd and 3rd quarter outbursts from Anthony Edwards and the stellar 2 way play from the young wing, Jaden McDaniels. By this point in the season, 60 games in, Ant is the beating heart of the team. Towns and Russell are the best players, Rubio is the steadying veteran voice, but the team goes as Ant goes. When he starts a comeback, the energy changes. Everyone plays harder on defense and lets Ant work his magic on offense. At this time, Ant’s teammates are just waiting to see what amazing feat he will pull off next. In this particular win over the #1 seed in the Western Conference it happened to be 23 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, and 5(!) steals. An Ant steal is different than a lot of other players stealing the ball. He is a football player at heart, so if he picks one off he is going the other way for a touchd — I mean a bucket! We knew Edwards could score, but seeing flashes of his impact on the game in so many other ways (9 rebounds and 5 steals) pushes our perception of his stardom to new levels. Instead of the best scorer on a team, he could be the best player on a team period. He backed that up in the next game against the Jazz, helping the Wolves to back to back wins with another 9 rebounds and 4 assists to go with his 14 points.

 

April 29th, 2021
Regular Season Game 64: Wolves vs. Warriors

Finally, a real statement win. I do not say that lightly, as a 20–44 team does not get the chance to make many statements. This was the 4th game of a 4 game win streak, the longest of the year for Minnesota. 2 wins over a coasting 1 seed in Utah, then a sleepy win over the messy Rockets. This was the real test against a white-hot Steph Curry and the desperate Warriors who were gunning for the playoffs. It is no exaggeration to say that the Wolves do not win this game if Ant doesn’t do what he did in the 4th quarter. 18 points on 7/11 shooting overall in the 4th, and the Warriors had no answer for him. Mind you, this is a team that employs defensive wizard Draymond Green. Ant gave it to them in all types of ways:

When a great scorer has it going, there really is not anything a defense can do. That is what happened with Edwards in the 4th against Golden State. I remember the good vibes very specifically after this game. 4 game win streak, a win over the Warriors, and Anthony Edwards completely taking over when it mattered most. “Wolves Twitter” was buzzing. It’s no longer a question of whether Ant becomes a star. It is only a matter of time now.

 

May 5th, 2021
Regular Season Game 66: Wolves vs. Grizzlies

Minnesota and Memphis squared off for the final time. The Grizzlies had become the Wolves’ kryptonite over the past few seasons with their strength, length, and grinding mentality that had overwhelmed the Wolves several times this season. When Memphis punched, there had not been a counterpunch. Not until this night. The 1st half ended with the Wolves down by 10, 73–63. Without much defense to speak of, Minnesota was in danger of getting blown out again if they could not match Memphis’ scoring output. Like he had done in so many recent games, Anthony Edwards decided to take over. A magical 3rd quarter saw him hit 4 three pointers out of 5 attempts, each one more difficult than the last. The entire quarter was one big heat check as Memphis searched for answers to slow him down. Ant just kept attacking. It culminated in a 16 point quarter for the young Wolf in only 9 minutes, and a close game heading into the 4th. 12 more points in the 4th quarter, including 2/2 on three pointers, landed him at 42 points for the game on only 22 shots. We had seen the volume scoring and we had seen some efficient nights, but this was the first time Anthony Edwards showed us that he could erupt like a volcano with efficiency and precision. Oh and he added 6 rebounds, 7 assists, a steal, and a block for good measure. Unfortunately the team defense never came around and Minnesota suffered a 4 point loss, but it was a clear sign to a team that the Wolves are going to be chasing… There will be a counterpunch.

 

May 16th, 2021
Regular Season Game 72: Wolves vs. Mavericks

The season finale. Finally a grueling regular season was about to come to an end for Minnesota after a long campaign that saw injuries, illnesses, suspensions, and firings. Lately though, the vibes had been strong with the team cohesion growing and the two young rookies cementing themselves as key components of the franchise’s future.With nothing left to play for besides pride, the young Wolves chose to show out on this final day as Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels put an exclamation point on their break-in seasons. McDaniels, the 6’9″ wing with an impossible combination of length and coordination, was a nightmare for Dallas on both ends of the floor. He spent the evening making Luka Dončić work for every shot attempt on defense. Jaden has to be one of the most frustrating defenders to play against with his length, quickness, and ability to swipe at the ball without fouling. Offensively he showed everything that we think he could be in the future by bagging 19 points on 13 shots including 3 three pointers and 2 monstrous dunks. The game was a window into a bright future for this burgeoning 2 way star. One that could heavily influence the future success of the Wolves. Then we have Anthony Edwards. The #1 overall pick playing in his 72nd career game finished the season with a bang. Quite literally. His final bucket of the night was a thunderous dunk in transition after a DLo steal. A fitting end to a powerful run to finish the season. 30 points from Edwards, 5 threes, 5 free throws, and 4 assists. He was everything we wanted him to be, and the flashes of brilliance that kept popping up seemed to be confirmed. Ant was headed for stardom. The Wolves won by 15, never really threatening to give up the lead. They were led by the two young rookies who had been through enough trials and tribulations already to basically shed the “rookie” title. And just like that, their long 1st season ended.

 

A Look Ahead

A Timberwolves season that once looked completely lost ended up providing Wolves fans with a feeling that they are intensely familiar with. Hope. There is a big difference between the Hope that we have seen in the past compared to the Hope that Jaden and Ant provide. This was not “I hope Ricky Rubio figures out his jump shot” or “I hope Kevin Love wants to stay in Minnesota.” The 20–21 season provided real tangible evidence that the future is blindingly bright for these two players.

 

Jaden McDaniels was a real life 6’9″ wing-stopper on defense that could legitimately shoot the basketball at 20 years old. How valuable is a player like that? Well Mikal Bridges is the 4th best player on a potential championship team and absolutely one of the key reasons they are in that position. He came into the league with two more years of college experience than McDaniels, and was known as a perimeter defender and shooter. Bridges is about to get a max contract because he is essentially the perfect role player. Jaden can follow that path, and has the tools to rise to even greater heights.

 

Anthony Edwards stock has only risen since the season concluded. The playoffs continue to show that one of the most valuable assets to a playoff team is a perimeter scorer who can create his own shot as well as create shots for others. The 2nd half of the season proved that Anthony Edwards checks both of those boxes. In the final 36 games (the entire 2nd half) Anthony Edwards averaged 23.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game on 45% shooting and 35% from the 3pt. line. Looks good, right? Let’s look at Donovan Mitchell’s 3rd season in the NBA, his 1st All Star appearance. In 69 games he averaged 24.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game on 45% shooting and 36% from 3. He was 23 years old when he accomplished those numbers. Anthony Edwards will be 19 years old until August. As always, no comparison is apples to apples. Different circumstances surround every situation, but it is incredibly promising. Probably the clearest sign of good things to come is how much better the Wolves were once Ant “figured it out.” They went 16–20 in the 2nd half after a 7–29 (yuck) 1st half. Also, the blowout losses that were commonplace in the 1st half of the year were more rare in the 2nd half, as Ant (and Jaden and KAT and DLo) seemed to give the Wolves a chance to win most nights. Ant really does have the goods to become this team’s “A1” talent. With other stars around him that complement his skills like KAT, DLo, and Jaden there is little doubt that he will reach his ceiling. We just may not yet know how high that ceiling will be.

 

-Jerry W.